- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Washington Wizards’ lineup changes — adding Caron Butler to the starting lineup and shifting Jared Jeffries from forward to shooting guard — paid off last week with impressive wins over probable Western Conference playoff teams Denver and Phoenix.

The wins salvaged the Wizards’ 2-3 road trip, maintaining their second-place spot in the Southeast Division.

The new lineup, which should be in place for the foreseeable future, is bigger, faster and probably stronger.

That could be seen against both the Nuggets and Suns. The Wizards (11-14) outrebounded both teams, including a 22-rebound advantage over the Nuggets, who feature the league’s second-leading rebounder, Marcus Camby, and Kenyon Martin. And Wizards coach Eddie Jordan believes Washington’s defense, which has been spotty this season, will start to come around as well.

But one by-product of the lineup change that can’t be denied is the offensive improvement.

The Wizards scored 116 and 112 points, respectively, against Denver and Phoenix, their highest scoring games in back-to-back victories this season. And while the downside is that they allowed 110 and 111 points, respectively, it looks as if they are finally comfortable with the lineup.

“It’s good that we can get [Butler and Jeffries] in the starting lineup at the same time,” Gilbert Arenas said. “It makes us bigger all over the court. Having Caron out there is good because Caron is so aggressive offensively. He’s going to take a load off of me and Antawn. The best thing is that we started off slow and finished our road trip on a good note.”

The difference?

“I think that the biggest difference is that we played harder, for whatever reason,” Arenas said.

While it’s still too early to say Butler’s insertion into the lineup is the reason for the team’s improvement, there’s no denying Jordan is happy to have that option.

Since the team acquired Butler for Kwame Brown last summer, the former Lakers forward has had a difficult time learning the offense. But Jarvis Hayes’ broken kneecap forced Butler to hasten the process, and Jordan noticed Butler has become more comfortable lately.

“He’s kept working on it — and he’s still got a way to go, but it’s coming,” Jordan said. “It’s a work in process, but he’s willing to work hard.”

One reason for the Wizards’ struggles in the last month has been their travel-intensive schedule. Thirteen of their last 19 games have been on the road. So far, the Wizards and the Rockets are tied with a league-low 10 home games.

The Wizards return home for tonight’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers (15-12), and 16 of their next 23 also will be at MCI Center.

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